Culture wars: Salafi attacks in La Marsa target heart of Tunisian secularism

Divine creatures from the La Marsa art exhibition

[Update 2: The ruling party has released a statement condemning both the artists and the vandals, calling for both of their prosecutions. See the press statement in English here]

[Update: Only moments after I posted this article more riots broke out in La Marsa. See my take on the most recent events here.]

It only happened yesterday, but already a lot of ink has and will be spilled on the confrontations at a local art fair yesterday in La Marsa, a coastal suburb of Tunis. The situation took place, according to several eyewitness accounts, at the Abdallia Palace, a former Ottoman palace turned gallery in the center of the town. The art fair, on its final day, was the scene of first verbal confrontations, and in the end, the destruction of numerous works of art by what appear to be religious groups who objected to what they deemed to be offensive works. Here are some quick thoughts on the incident and how its been reported in what will surely remain, along with Persepolis, a key event in the Tunisian culture wars.

A number of journals have already provided descriptions of the incident. In English, have a look at Tunisia Live’s accounts here and here. French accounts can be found here and here.

Firstly, what remains unclear is exactly what was found offensive by the protesters. The La Marsa art fair was held over 10 days throughout the northern Tunis suburbs of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. Reports on social networks have been inconclusive. Many have reacted against a work which appears to show a pair of women’s panties, although other sources claim that these photos were taken elsewhere in Tunis and were not part of the exhibitition. The La Marsa bookstore Mille Feuilles reported on its Facebook page that one of the offending pictures was entitled Divine Creatures, in what appears to be an abstract image of different animals. Another image on Tunisia Live’s website shows a punching bag with a woman wearing a veil with a caption reading “I am a Christian woman.” Reports have not mentioned what exactly was deemed offensive by these images or if other images were exhibited that were more outwardly provocative.

Which leads to point number 2, provocation is once again the key word for those who have defended the protesters, including Tunisia’s Islamist-led government. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs released a statement condemning “all attacks against that which is holy, which is the case for some of the works on exhibition.” This follows repeated calls on social networks against violence, but also against the art fair for provoking religious discord in the country. Many of these accounts cited the precarious position Tunisia is in at the present moment as cause for self-censorship of these kinds of works. My readers will recall that the same logic has been used frequently in Tunisia under similar circumstances, such as the release of the film Neither God nor Master last year or the broadcast of Persepolis by Nessma TV last October. In the case of the latter, as in the current case, the call of provocation was also made by the ruling party itself.

Thirdly, the reports are entirely unclear whether protesters and destroyers of art are the same people. Articles have stated that there were at least three different incidences last night. According to Tunisia Live and Nawaat blogger Lilia Weslaty, first a group of people at the exhibit protested directly to the curator of the exhibit. They then said they would return with other protesters and lawyers. When this happened a confrontation took place with exhibit-goers and protesters which was resolved peacefully with police involvement. Finally, later in the evening a group of people returned to the gallery, vandalized works of art, spray painted the buildings, and left. It is unclear whether these were the same groups. This is important because it was only the vandals who clearly crossed red lines.

One other observation is that almost all of the accounts I have seen talk about the behavior of the art fair organizers. It appears that after the initial confrontation, the organizers made it difficult for pious critics of the exhibit to properly view the exhibit. Weslaty reports that these critics were followed closely to “protect the artwork.” Tunisia Live reports that these people felt that those who were following them were trying to “provoke” them. Whatever the reality, the news reports point to what was clearly a class divide between the organizers and the religious activists. It is hardly uncommon to hear among Tunisia’s educated elite how ignorant they think Salafis to be. Likewise, among Salafis, a common refrain is that the elite are completely out of touch with ordinary Tunisians because of their French educations and haughty ways of acting. The reports on these incidents seem to confirm this class of cultures.

So what can we take away from this ugly incident?

Ultimately, what’s important is that this attack was a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular, and French speaking community. La Marsa, a town built by the French 100 years ago, is one of the few towns in Tunisia where you’ll hear as much French as Tunisian – not only do many foreigners live in La Marsa, but the Tunisian residents have often been educated in one of the French schools in the city. To give an idea, the town of La Marsa has its own polling place for French residents. While previous incidents of this nature have taken place in downtown Tunis or in towns in Tunisia’s interior, Sunday’s incident struck at a pocket of Tunisian progressivism at an event that celebrated free expression. It is unlikely that this event will soon be forgotten and many in La Marsa will no doubt be expecting yet more confrontations of this kind.

For more on Tunisia’s culture wars see here, here, here, here and here.

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NPR Series on Tunisia looks at politics, women, presidents, and booze

Filling up on legmi by the side of the road

NPR reporters buying moonshine on the side of the road. Photo by John Poole, NPR

NPR’s Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Tunisia this week on the first leg of a road trip across North Africa. He’s filed a number of interesting reports that are well worth checking out.

Some highlights:

Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity – including an interview with Ferida Lebidi, a member of the Constituent Assembly from Ennahdha. She talk about political repression under the former regime and, interestingly, how she would like to institute the death penalty for adulterers.

Some Taboos Vanish In Tunisia, Replaced By Others – discussing religious taboos replacing political taboos and new censorship in Tunisia. Money quote: “Tunisia is the laboratory of the Arab world. We are today addressing all the questions we should have addressed one century ago. We are negotiating our past, our common values, where are the red lines of the freedom of speech.”

Tunisia’s Leader: Activist, Exile And Now President – An interview with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki. Money quote: “We badly need the help of our friends in Europe, in the United States, because Tunisia is now a kind of lab — the whole Arab world is watching,” he said. “This year, which is the most dangerous year because it’s the year after the revolution, and the level of expectation is very, very high. And people are waiting for everything — for a miracle.”

Once Tolerated, Alcohol Now Creates Rift In Tunisia– Stories are rampant about attacks on the alcohol industry in Tunisia, but Inskeep provides us with this nugget: “Since Tunisia’s revolution, the company that brews Celtia has reported sales have actually increased. And that company is a state-run enterprise. That means that technically the Islamist party now dominating the government is in the brewing business.”

And finally, Inskeep gives us the story we’ve all been waiting for – how to make Tunisian moonshine.

Road Brew: How To Make Hooch With Tunisian Date Juice (Or Try) – After sampling Tunisian date wine – the NPR photographer stated: “It’s like one-third maple syrup to two-thirds water, but with a hint of dates.” And, after trying to make it in what must have been a dare – “What remained in the bottle was “unbelievably foul.”

 

Political party watch – updates on the state of Tunisia’s political parties

A CPR supporting car with Marzouki’s signature glasses.

One of the continuing themes in Tunisian politics is the ever changing political landscape of Tunisia’s political parties. Changes within secular parties have become a daily occurrence, and the upcoming assembly of Ennahdha and the legalization of at least one Salafist party have shown the shifting sands of Tunisia’s electoral politics. As I noted earlier this month, the secular parties have had a notoriously tough time organizing. But as the results of the Egyptian elections have shown us, even strong organization among Islamists has not reduced their electoral vulnerabilities. This is the first in what I hope will be a series of updates on the state of political parties in Tunisia.

——

Destourian Parties: According to a recent press release, at least four Destourian (or Bourguibist) parties are once again trying to coordinate their activities. Readers may recall that a large gathering of Destourians, led by transitional leader Beji Caid Essebsi last March, attempted to unite all of the former regime parties, only to collapse just days later.

Ettaktol: Amidst further falls in (notoriously unreliable) Tunisian opinion polls, the political bureau of Tunisia’s third major party in the Constituent Assembly attempts a further reshuffling. The party leader, Mustapha ben Jafaar eluded to a potential alliance or fusion of Ettaktol with another political party. Their congress is scheduled for next fall.

CPR: President Moncef Marzouki’s party, the CPR, after a mass exodus of officials from the party, attempted to calm supporters that it was breaking apart. Leaders reports that according to internal sources, the party is engaged at rebuilding its internal structures and recapitalizing its much depleted funds (it reportedly only has 11,000TND, or about $7,000 in its account?!). Regional congresses are scheduled in June.

Republican Party (Former PDP/Afek): The Republican Party (an amalgamation of the PDP and Afeq) has called for a national unity government. Accusing the government of incompetence, Secretary General Maya Jbiri called on the government to admit its defeat and to reconstitute a much reduced caretaker government. Readers may recall that Ennahdha had proposed this after the elections, while PDP leaders said that their duty was to stand in opposition.

PCOT: The Tunisian Communist Part (PCOT) saw another one of its offices attacked, this time just outside Tunis. The  party has been the source of continued harassment in recent weeks. The party stopped short of accusing any party, although other attacks have taken place by Salafi activists in Tunis and in other regions. Meanwhile, the PCOT continues to call for the cancellation of Tunisia’s external debt incurred under Ben Ali. While the issue has been an issue for the PCOT for some time, it was recently resurrected with the election of French president Francois Hollande who indicated support for the measure during a visit to Tunisia last year.

Related political party news: Francis Fukuyama says that the deficiency of Facebook as an organizing tool for political parties is one reason why liberal parties in Arab Spring countries have such trouble against the party machines of Islamist movements. Money quote:

[Liberals] could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. Political parties exist in order to institutionalize political participation; those who were best at organizing, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have walked off with most of the marbles. Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.

More on Tunisian political parties here, here, and here.

A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  – the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

Tunisia’s secular political parties have had a rough go of it. Thought to have been in a prime position to govern after Tunisia’s uprising, support quickly collapsed and splintered into various factions. Although the 9 major secular parties managed to garner about 30 percent of the popular vote in last October’s elections, only the two highest vote getters, the CPR with 8.7% of the vote and Ettaktol with 7%, decided to join the ruling coalition with Islamist party Ennahdha, which garnered 37% of the popular vote.

Despite a long period of self-reflection following their electoral defeat in October, the collapse of secular parties appears to continue unabated – this despite efforts to unify their efforts ahead of next year’s scheduled elections. Day after day newspapers report about the infighting, policy disagreements, lack of leadership, and lack of popular support. With less than a year to go until the elections (probably), let’s have a look at the parties and where they stand.

Congress for the Republic: The CPR came from out of nowhere in October to earn the second most seats in the Constituent Assembly. They ran on a populist agenda that stressed its willingness to work with whoever won – including the Islamists – and the charm of Moncef Marzouki. The party quickly ran into trouble, though, after Marzouki was named president of the republic in a deal that shared government positions between Ettaktol and Ennahdha. Marzouki was seen by some as abandoning his party in his pursuit for power. Without Marzouki holding things together, the party slowly broke down and finally split when its secretary general left the party at the beginning of May, taking with him a third of the parties delegates in the Assembly. They have subsequently former a new party, the Independent Democratic Congress. While Marzouki remains a popular figure according to (notoriously unreliable) polling data, the party itself may not be able to hold together, at issue is the extent to which the party should cooperate with Ennahdha.

Ettaktol: Like the CPR, Ettaktol ran its campaign on the grounds of working with Ennahdha. This earned it a place in the ruling coalition with the CPR and Ennahdha, and its secretary general the position of president of the Constituent Assembly. Seen at the time as a defeat, with Ennahdha leading the government and the CPR the presidency, Mustapha Ben Jafaar has maneuvered behind the scenes. Ettaktol suffered its first major blow in February, when thousands of its members resigned, including several assembly members. They were reportedly angry at Ben Jafaar’s non-democratic decision making and its cooperation with Ennahdha. Nevertheless, reports on the ground have shown that the party retains a structure that could lend itself to revival around election time. Nonetheless, Ben Jafaar’s low profile has not positioned the party as a leader – and polling data shows him far below his fellow troika partners Marzouki and prime minister Jebali, of the Ennahdha movement.

Progressive Democratic Party: The PDP is the biggest disaster among Tunisia’s secular parties. In January 2011, newspapers wondered whether party leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi could be the next president of Tunisia – but the party’s extraordinarily poor performance in the elections (less than 4 percent of the vote) caused the party to rethink its approach. In subsequent months, the PDP has tried to regain its footing, but it does not seem to have found a formula that resonates. In March, Chebbi appeared at a major rally in Monastir with former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and dozens of former officials of the previous dictatorships. He was savaged by the left for appearing to stand with authoritarian remnants of the rejected regime. In April, the party attempted to unify various factions of the left through a fusion with two other parties, the coalition fell apart less than three weeks later. As of today, the party appears as fractured as ever and there is virtually no structure outside of Tunisia’s major cities.

Bourguibist Parties: Bourguibist parties, as I’ve written about previously, have attempted to regain strength through both opposition to the laxist Islamist government and a platform that eschews liberal values but harkens back to the proud days of post-colonial Tunisia when President Bourguiba led the country into modernity. As I wrote at the time: “To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.” Despite my optimism for the movement, the reality is that the Destourians are led by an 86 year old man. Despite his popularity, he remains a figure of the past, not of the future of this young country.

Other parties: Various other secular parties continue to struggle gaining supporters. Pro-business party Afek abandoned its platform entirely as it merged with social democratic PDP. The PDM, most recently implicated in a voting scandal at the Constituent Assembly, remains a party of Tunisia’s rich suburbs, with virtually no reach beyond the French-speaking elite. The POCT, the Tunisian Communist Party, has been an exception to the general fragmentation and loss of support among Tunisians. Its leader, Hamma Hammami, who long suffered under the regime of Ben Ali, remains a key figure in Tunisia’s labor movement and the party seems to remain above the criticism of many secular parties as elitist or opportunistic. The class struggle truly continues in the POCT. Nevertheless, perceptions of communist parties in Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world (and America, might I add), remain marred by the association with atheism.

Obviously, the secular parties in Tunisia are fragmented and dispersed. So what -what does it matter? There are two major reasons this matters.

Firstly, the constitution has not yet set up the electoral system, we do not yet know if Tunisia will have a parliamentary or presidential system or how the voting will be structured (proportional representation, majoritarian, etc). One of the major criticisms of last year’s elections in Tunisia was the confusing choice Tunisian’s had between the 100+ parties on the ballot. The Constituent Assembly may very well look to change this in the constitution, favoring fewer parties by requiring seats to be awarded only after exceeding a certain threshold of votes. The longer smaller parties remain independent, the more difficult it will be for them if an electoral system is chosen that disfavors them.

Secondly, and most importantly, while secular parties are busy bickering in Tunis, the country is becoming a one party system. For every meeting between Afek and PDP in Tunis, Ennahdha is opening another office in a small town in the hinterlands. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi meets foreign dignitaries, even though he holds no official post in the government while opposition leaders struggle to fill school rooms with supporters.

Ennahdha is getting ready for the next 50 years of politics in Tunisia, building its infrastructure and its future leaders. In most cities you will find no other political offices besides Ennahdha. Tunisian voters in many areas will make their choices in the next elections having met no own from any other party. At a time when Tunisians are debating their very future, Tunisia’s secularists are not putting themselves at the table.

* (Update) A fundamental issue that I have not addressed in this analysis is the actual policies of secular parties and whether or not they resonate with Tunisian voters. This is obviously a crucial element to their success and the subject of a future post.

Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

File:El Ghriba.jpg

The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.

 

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.